Seth Goldenberg is a designer, curator, and entrepreneur who harnesses the power of questioning to catalyze innovation and cultural change. He is the founder and CEO of Curiosity & Co., a one-of-a-kind bookstore, experience laboratory, and design-ventures studio, and the creator of the Ideas Salons invitational thought leader retreats that tackle the essential questions of our time.
Seth is also the author of Radical Curiosity: Questioning Commonly Held Beliefs to Imagine Flourishing Futures – available Aug 23.
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Radical Curiosity in Education
Daniel: So what is school for? Seriously, I’m asking if you were to ask that question, what is the purpose of school? What is it for? How would you answer? I had a conversation which you’re going to hear on today’s podcast, which, if I could say so, it’s pretty awesome. I talked with Seth Goldenberg, who wrote a new book called Radical Curiosity. But listen to the subtitles. This is exactly for Ruckus Makers. The subtitle is Questioning Commonly Held Beliefs to Imagine Flourishing Futures. You can tell just from that title of a book the idea of radical curiosity that this is a show just for you. Back to my question, what is school for? If we question all the parts that make up this concept of school as we know it today, and we were charged, let’s say, the the presidents of all nations around the world said, “You Ruckus Maker listening, you are going to lead the task force that is going to rebuild, reinvent and reimagine school. How would you do it?” Well, that’s a fun question to think about, isn’t it? A lot like the question I end up writing every podcast with “If you were building your dream school, what would you do?” Enjoyed today’s conversation with Seth and welcome to the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast, a show for Ruckus Makers, those out of the box, leaders making change happen in education. We’ll be right back after some messages from our show sponsors.
Daniel: Deliver on your school’s vision with Harvard’s Certificate in School Management and Leadership. Learn from Harvard Business and Education School faculty in self paced online professional development specifically designed for pre-K through 12 school leaders. Courses include leading change, leading school strategy and Innovation, Leading People and Leading Learning programs run October 12th to November 9th, 2020 to apply by Friday, September 30th for our upcoming cohort at BetterLeadersBetterSchools.com/Harvard. Are you automatically tracking online student participation data during COVID? Innovative school leaders across the country have started tracking online student participation using Teach FX because it’s one of the most powerful ways to improve student outcomes during COVID, especially for English learners and students of color. Learn more about Teach FX and get a special offer to teacgfx.com/BLBS. All students have an opportunity to succeed with Organized Binder, which equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning, whether that’s in a distance, hybrid or traditional educational setting. Learn more at OrganizeBinder.COM. All right. Hey, Ruckus Makers. I am here with Seth Goldenberg, who’s a designer, curator and entrepreneur who harnesses the power of questioning to catalyze innovation and cultural change. He is the founder and CEO of Curiosity and Company, a one of a kind bookstore experience, laboratory and design venture studio and the creator of the ideas salons, invitational thought leader retreats that tackle the essential questions of our time. Seth is also author of Radical Curiosity. Here’s a copy of his book right here Radical Curiosity Questioning Commonly Held Beliefs to Imagine Flourishing Futures available August 23rd. Seth, welcome to the show.
Seth: Well, thank you for having me. I love the chief Ruckus Maker . This is good.
Daniel: It’s a nod of the cap to one of my heroes and mentors, Seth Godin, who’s always talking about making a ruckus. Since day one, starting this podcast, that’s been a flag that I’ve been waving and the audience is really gravitated to that. We’re going to make a ruckus, through this conversation. There’s a lot to talk about regarding you, but I actually want to start with your wife, if that’s okay? I read that she created her own a charter high school. Through watching her build this thing, you learned a great deal from her experience and you realized that questioning was a big piece of the school success. We’ll start there, if that’s all right.
Seth: Yeah, absolutely. Again, thank you for having me. Oon my side, just real quick to identify with your Chief Ruckus Maker . One of my heroes is Maurice Sendak from Where the Wild Things Are. The great line is “let the wild rumpus begin.” I wasn’t sure if it was Ruckus. I was just making sure it wasn’t ruckus or ruckus. I
Seth: My wife, who is an amazing and fascinating education entrepreneur, she founded the first secondary charter school in the state of Rhode Island with a team, a co-founding team of incredible leadership, women who are just Ruckus Makers of their own. I wound up partnering with her when I was at Rhode Island School Design RISD, the kind of Harvard of design schools, which brought me originally to Rhode Island, where I’m speaking to you today. One of the things I learned from her is really how the Socratic method and the practice of essential questions became the operating system of their curriculum and many of their courses, then pedagogical frameworks. As she and I began our relationship, I felt like I was getting a second profession, an education myself. One of the things that connected us was this idea of questioning. As a designer who has been schooled in design thinking, questioning is absolutely the central, if not the first step in a kind of journey of design making. I always felt like it’s a quick step that is immediately going to the next stages as IDEO or McKinsey or all these practitioners who do design thinking work on. I felt like it’s kind of the penultimate step. So design is a practice of asking questions, but I didn’t really know about this other kind of entire world of pedagogy as a practice of asking questions. So this is a marriage made in heaven, right?
Daniel: It sounds like it’s. Questions are obviously integral to how you show up and serve in the world, certainly the foundation. During our chat you mentioned something that set off my Spidey Sense. You said you love asking thorny, thorniest and most radioactive questions. Can you dig in a bit and tell us like, what does that mean?
Seth: Yeah, absolutely. I call the book Radical Curiosity a practice. I believe in my studio, we’re inventing something that’s after design, thinking that we’re calling radical curiosity as a kind of mindset and and practice. The term radical comes from the Latin root of radical plus, which really means to the roots of things, radicalize the root. It’s not just passive. Of curiosity. It’s not just a kind of wandering. Radical curiosity is really about questioning the very assumptions of things, the very foundations where those legacy narratives are born. It’s not just a kind of responsiveness, meaning a call and response, like a dialogue, a question and answer. It’s much more proactive and intentional, saying, “What do we really mean by health or ecology or justice?” All the kinds of human experience, human condition questions, those big things that make up the human experience. Those are the things that really are compelling to me and what radical curiosity is all about. I think we don’t ask those harder questions enough. And this term of the radioactive or the thorny, it’s almost like much of society. We kind of avoid that. We kind of stay on the surface. It feels familiar and recognizable, but maybe if we need to be uncomfortable in order to really get kind of deep in the layers of the onion, to really figure out what these models are based on, that might be the only place where we can really get to something more transformative.
Daniel: It sounds like you need to create the space to be able to engage with those kinds of questions. When you’re working with leaders, what else goes into setting up that environment? That you can wrestle with these really essential questions?
Seth: That’s a great question. I think we underestimate how much trust is required to do that heavy lifting and also how much trust has been fractured recently and I mean, recently at a kind of multi-decade scale. There’s so much talk and so much writing now about returning back to normal post-pandemic. But I do think that the pandemic was an existential crisis that maybe made the kind of spelunking of getting deeper into these radical questions more accessible and more necessary, we find. What do we mean by work? Where do we work? What is the value of work? All these things are finding, I think, coming to the surface now, and I think trust has both been broken and trust needs to be deeply cultivated. So I think the social space, not just the literal space, but the social space of the intimacy of trust that is required to really open up these harder questions is the real thing.
Daniel: When you’re working with leaders now, you’re the expert, so correct me wherever I’m wrong, but I think you have these design studios and creativity labs. You talk about “ideas salons” and in your wrestling with these thorny and radioactive questions. And now you just talked about this piece of trust. And maybe trust is fractured. We have to rebuild it and make deposits and relationships and all this kind of stuff. What does that look like for you? Set the stage now to build the trust so that we can get to the question. Get to the questions. What’s your approach?
Seth: We deploy a variety of techniques, but also just the kind of way of life. I’m calling today from the island of Jamestown, and I live on an island as a design innovation guy that is not Manhattan, which is rare. We chose a different island and we have really had the pleasure of hosting our clients and collaborators. When organizational leaders want to work with us, they often will come to our island. And we have a great saying. “We say slow down in order to speed up.” This island is a very small farming rural island, less than 4000 people. And slowing down is a way to methodically kind of move time at a different pace in order to make sure to get the questions right, because the wrong question can do harm. An okay average question could create some value. But to really slow down and cultivate trust through a kind of pace, through a kind of retreat-like environment. America doesn’t love it. Retreats on accident sometimes. It’s interesting the question, “Why do we leave the office to do strategic planning? Why do we leave our cubicle or our desk to think deeply?” I think there is something about the removal and being placed in nature to slow down, to break bread. There’s all kinds of rituals we deploy about food, about being in and near water, all these things, it’s not an accident, right?
Daniel: I can relate. I’m coming off of a conference slash retreat. One of my coaches lives sometimes in California and then half the year in Medellin, Colombia. I don’t know if you’ve been there, but that was my first time to Colombia. Wow, I’m in love, like I might move there type of thing. We had two days of just inspiration. Maze and speakers. You had the relationships, the breaking of bread like you’re talking about, but then a key piece talking about water. Two days on the river, the Rio Verde. Whitewater rafting and camping in the rainforest like that. That broke open my heart, right in my mind in ways that it needed to happen. I’m really resonating with what you’re saying. Go ahead. Tell us.
Seth: I love what you’re saying, because I think it sounds like whoever you’re working with, your mentor, being on the river, whitewater rafting and camping in the rainforest, I wanted to kind of share that part. One of the building blocks described in the book, Radical Graffiti is innovation as a practice of R and or has become a new language that I’ve become really just entangled with. We know the sublime, we know the spectacle. We know the idea of being kind of overwhelmed with beauty, that we feel a sense of awe. But as a part of the book, I did some research about how science and psychology is catching up to or how we are now better able in a kind of neuroscience sensibility to describe what happens to us in awe. One of the things we found was when you say, “oh, my gosh, that blows my mind,” we say colloquially, right? What that means in a psychology and a kind of neuroscience sense. It’s almost like when we encounter or when we say it blows our mind, it’s actually that a new version of the world, a new view of the world has entered our mind. We have to accommodate and acquire this new idea to literally stretch and expand our previous understanding of the world. And I felt that whether we know it through science or just instinctually, we go on the Rapid River, we go camping in the rainforest. The more we put ourselves both in slow space, slow time, but also in Encounters of Awe, really do enable us to reorder our mental models so that curiosity can flourish. I love hearing your example was brilliant.
Daniel: Thank you, Seth. For the Ruckus Maker who’s watching this video or listening to the podcast, I want you to to write down these two questions and think about that are inspired by Seth. How during this year are you going to slow down so that you can speed up and you personally write as a leader, but also think about your organization and your staff and then this inspiring piece about or like how are you going to innovate and engineer that for yourself and for your staff as well? So those are two things I definitely want you to consider. Let’s move on to idea salons. I love the name and I want to know more. If I was to come to one of your idea salons like Tell US More, what’s that all about?
Seth: My company was launched at an Idea Salon. The very first thing I did when I started my business was I established my dream of the Thanksgiving table, the party, the convening that I always wanted to have. It’s really inspired by the history of French salons. This was a space. For Revolution, where philosophers and business leaders and cultural artists of the day would come together and discuss the big questions of the moment and imagine and kind of activate the revolution to respond. I felt like most conferences were very transactional. It’s a format in our modern world that I feel is a bit tired. Idea Salon is a kind of an unscripted version of a conference. Literally the experiment began as if we had three days and 60 people and no sage on stage, no speaker, no talking head, no script. We said, “Let’s identify the big questions of the day, debate them and imagine ways forward. What would that look like?” It’s an experience. It’s a kind of three day dinner party that has lots of choreography, but it’s kind of invisible to the guests because it’s a very open format. What we find is that if things get too scripted, there’s not the raw, unexpected new thinking that is really required. I would say what you would experience is almost more like the Blue Man Group kind of theatrical experience of ideation in a less scripted format that we find often yields the big house.
Daniel: I’m going to have to press and push you a bit on this idea of being unscripted, those sets, because not necessarily leaders I support, but I’m making a generalization, but leaders like control. All right.
Seth: I’ve heard that rumor.
Daniel: Say it unscripted, right? In three days you know, this is a significant amount of time, I would say. How do you approach that as a leader? What tips would you have for the Ruckus Maker who’s engaging with our conversation?
Seth: It’s a great one. Look, it’s not easy to be in a terrain that feels less known, less stable, less tangible. But we think this is what is required for curiosity to kind of become comfortable not knowing. Answers have replaced questions. You talk about your leader, the current. Most mature terminal degree in business leadership is the MBA Master’s in business administration. The business leader today is conditioned to administer predetermined answers. And we believe that here in my studio that real novel solutions that are required to fit the complexity of today requires less of a deployment of blueprints that already exists and a return to a kind of Socratic method of asking questions in spaces that are less certain. Like, What do we really mean by fill in the blank? Ex I mean, I love hearing about how there’s become this black and white, left or right like fund or defund the police. This is not helpful. What is really interesting is when a community comes together and says, “What is justice for us? Let’s redefine justice.” Where communities in the post, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter movement have begun to say, “Let’s run a community cooperative discourse, a civic imagination to define what safety is, what justice is, what we want our community to look like.” They’re less scripted, they’re less certain or less transactional. This is kind of what we do at salons. Sure, there are some boundaries, but it’s not it’s not musical chairs. It’s not standing up, sitting down. Sometimes you have to discover even the question in order to know what journey you’re on. And we think this is where really important things happen.
Daniel: These are important questions. What’s justice? What is safety? I can only imagine how engaging these debates and conversations are at the salons. Another one that we should be thinking about is education. You have a chapter in your book that talks about how education is too big to fail, but maybe it should. Now that sounds like a funny assertion. And our Ruckus Makers would love to hear your take on that.
Seth: I think we tend to think of our own individual experiences. It’s very difficult to work at a system scale, but at a system scale, at a national scale, I believe that virtually every social system is facing an existential moment. The very premise of the design of these social systems needs to be put under duress, under examination. And for me, education at a national scale. Imagine and I’m sure you encountered this with your viewers, your ruckus community. If you corner someone and ask them, “Do you really think the national system of education is working?” Very few people would just quickly say,” yes, well, not really.” Here’s what I do. This is what I hope. This is what I believe. Let’s just imagine for a brief moment, give me a little rope to hang myself. We don’t believe the grand experiment of public education is working. But speaking of safety and justice, we’ll throw you into jail for not attending. Called truancy. What has happened is we tend to just kind of adopt legacy narratives, as I call them in the book. We’re born into a series of histories that we were not a part of developing or deciding. Right. And we come into this world and apparently money exists. The ecosystem is strained and education is from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. everywhere in America, and that’s how things are. I think designers are wildly optimistic. For me, the question is, can we even have a conversation to say what education is for? Are we just assuming it has to be how it is, how willing? Speaking of the term ruckus, what level of ruckus are we willing to embrace to consider the reboot button? The kind of refresh of an operating system like the Safari reboot on your computer should happen with every social system. We should entertain schools that don’t look like anything they look like. Now. I’m tired of the micro mini changes and moving this to the left and to the right. We should entertain a much wider cacophony of experiments.
Daniel: I can tell you a design guy. That’s wonderful. These are the types of things that keep me up at night. And I love to just ponder. I’d love to hear you refine the idea of moving beyond the four walls of the classroom. What does it look like to create more authentic and real life experiences for our students?
Seth: Absolutely. It’s a famous quote. It was either it was Einstein. Who said ‘the only thing that gets away in the way of my learning is my schooling. ” I think for me, look, I’ve my wife’s school that we began this conversation with, their thematic approach to their charter school is service learning, which I’m a big believer in when you work in your community and contribute to your community as a way to learn interdisciplinary project based civic skills. I began when I founded an institute called the Center for Public Engagement, and it was very important for me, even at a collegiate level, at higher education level, to get artists and designers and digital media makers outside of their studio, in the classroom and into the real world. I believe that life is not a schedule. Life is not a curriculum. Life is not run by school periods. Life is a collection of encounters. I would love to imagine a school of the future that requires no walls in which we are traveling and extends our radius of exposure by being with the world.
Daniel: I really resonate with that. I’ve I’ve talked about a school that doesn’t have walls and that kind of thing too, because the class, the classrooms all around you. There’s learning experiences and ways that you can make a difference. Make an impact right outside of a school. I’m loving this conversation. Seth, we’re going to take a quick break just to get in a few messages from our sponsors. When we return, I’d love to ask you the same three questions. I end with all my guests. Today’s show is sponsored by the Harvard Certificate in School Management and Leadership. You can learn how to successfully navigate, change, shape your school’s success, and empower your teams with this program. Get online professional development that fits your schedule. Courses include leading change, leading school strategy and Innovation, Leading People and leading learning. You can apply today. BetterleadersBetterschools.com/Harvard. The Better Leaders Better Schools podcast is also brought to you by Teach FX. Research shows that the more students speak in class, the more they learn and the better they perform. Teach FX has helped hundreds of schools increase their student engagement by visualizing for teachers. What portions of class are teacher talk time versus student talk time? Learn more at teachFX.com/BLBS.
Daniel: Today’s show is proudly sponsored by Organized Binder, a program which gives students daily exposure to goal setting, reflective learning time and task management, study strategies, organizational skills and more organized binder’s color coded system is implemented by the teacher through parallel process with students helping them create a predictable and dependable classroom routine. You can learn more and improve your students’ executive functioning at organizedbinder.com. We’re back with Seth Goldenberg. He wrote this wonderful book, I have an advance copy, but it’s available August 23rd. Radical Curiosity. So pick that up everywhere books are sold by the way. Side note: I love seeing you nod along. As I was doing the sponsoring kits, I found that like super encouraging. I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but thank you.
Seth: I’ve not been as intimately aware of some of those offerings and services, so it’s interesting to hear what you and your community are connected to. It’s exciting.
Daniel: Awesome. Thank you. I can’t wait to ask these questions I asked all my guests, but all the answers are obviously as diverse and unique as the guests that I speak with. Seth, if you could put a message on all school marquees around the world, but just for a day, what would your message read?
Seth: It’s like the marketing billboard agency of record of all of the education sector, right? I can’t resist. I mean, radical curiosity. The subtitle is questioning commonly held beliefs. Imagine flourishing futures. I just believe that in order for people to retain their voice, their agency and authentically work to co-author the future, they need to question everything. I would just make two words. Question everything, period.
Daniel: Yeah. Listen, Ruckus Makers pick up Seth’s book because this is a part of our leadership presence. As a Ruckus Maker , we are questioning and challenging the status quo and tradition in commonly held beliefs all the time. You’re going to love radical curiosity. Definitely pick that up. You’re building a dream school right from the ground up. You’re not limited by anything. Your only limitation, I guess, is actually your imagination. How would Seth build his dream school? And what would be the three guiding principles?
Seth: Of the school? Three Guiding. It’s more complex. We’re in full mission architecture now. We started to touch on this momentarily ago, but I think it’s less about a building or a place than a kind of pedagogical entry point, if you will. I think that the world today has so many challenges, but it’s like a wildly exciting time to be alive. We have more capacity, more computing power in our pockets, in our phones than most Hollywood studios add, you know, the mid century,we almost underestimate the pure abilities surrounding us. It’s a renaissance of possibility. If we took every major question that is a part of public life, we would talk about it here in our studio. How will we live, learn, work, play and sustain ourselves in the next century? I think schools are the best environments to learn by doing, but as a kind of action based research to put in the hands of young people that inquiry. What if we asked 1,000,012 year olds what should health look like? What should learning look like? I think schools should be designed as giant research laboratories where young people get to invent the future. Who are we to say that? What has worked for us? Asian should work for their generation. I mean, Hannah Arendt has this great quote about renewal and do we care for our young people enough to enable them to make their own choices and living?
Seth: But to me, that would mean three things would be school. It’s almost as though all fixed knowledge, all preexisting knowledge is now available at the top of our fingers because of technology. The real act of learning may be guiding. Principle number one is that learning should be focused on the invention of new knowledge. Yeah. If preexisting knowledge is transactional. Sure we need to contextualize. We need to figure out the relationships in order for that transactional knowledge to become alive. But the real pursuit of learning is the active invention of new knowledge. would be number one. Number two, I would say, if that’s the case, I have this dangerous idea. Maybe because of your audience, this may not resonate. But hear me out, okay? I don’t know if we need teachers in the way that we’ve previously conceived of them. What if teachers were more like journey partners and concierges and facilitators where they were available to help contextualize to help form relational knowledge? But they really are almost like venture capital, entrepreneurial investors in a young generation figuring it out. Teachers need to get out of the way and become guiding travel partners. Now, that sounds very conceptual and probably the best teachers are saying, Well, that is what I do.
Daniel: I was in the say like I was. I was thinking that’s what I did.
Seth: If that’s scale. I don’t know. You might know the data, but let’s say America has 500,000 teachers. A million teachers. If we have reimagined the national learning ecosystem as a million travel guides, imagine where we could go. Yeah, so that would be number two. I would say number three. That means that actually the location doesn’t matter. The question matters. The issue matters. If we wanted to reimagine the future of housing, maybe rather than spending our money here on this or that, maybe they need to go to Bali to look at how bamboo is being used to make housing. I mean, travel and the global sheer range of diversity that is available to the wisdom of pre-existing knowledge in order to build upon that for new knowledge I think is wildly underestimated. I think the third for me is not just diversity inclusion because of a kind of language or buzz term. I think in education and learning. Diversity is an extraordinary universe of cultural knowledge that we have accidentally written out of the curriculum. That may be the reason and the last new frontier to unlock and connect the sciences and humanities in ways that we have not been able to yet.
Daniel: Brilliant. Well, Seth, we covered a lot of ground to this conversation. If there was one.
Seth: Problem, partner, you. You’re fulfilling my dream of a future teacher, my friend.
Daniel: That’s what I tried to do. So thank you very much. Of everything we spoke about today, what’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?
Seth: I think I’ll ask for more. I think things are a little quiet out there. We’re facing so much right now. It feels like everything is changing. We need to ask for more. We can ask more of our leaders. We can ask more of our communities. We can ask more of our business businesses. Wwe need to really dial up the expectations. Utopia is still worth fighting for. Let’s just say that.
Daniel: Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast Ruckus Maker . If you have a question or would like to connect my email Daniel@betterleadersbetterschools.com or hit me up on Twitter at. @Alien earbud if the better leader is better schools podcasts are helping you grow as a school leader then please help us serve more ruckus makers like you. You can subscribe. Leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode. Extra credit for tagging me on Twitter and @AlienEarbud and using the hashtag# blbs. Level up your leadership. Betterleadersbetterschools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, “class dismissed.”
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